Facts behind the stacks

A History of the British Museum Library 1753-1973
May 21, 1999

In December 1846 Thomas Grenville, who had retired from politics in 1818, bequeathed his library to the trustees of the British Museum. It was hailed at the time as "the noblest bequest to the nation (not excepting Sir Hans Sloane's) ever made by a private person in this country". Arrangements for the conveyance of Grenville's collection of 20,240 volumes to the museum began immediately after his death in 1846. During bitterly cold weather in January and February 1847, 21 van loads carried the treasures from his Hyde Park house. The last volume, containing 12 paintings on vellum by a Croatian artist, was brought in a cab. Philip Harris recounts all these bare facts in A History of the British Museum Library , but does not add one delightful detail: librarians are not demonstrative people, but they were so thrilled by the conclusion of this transfer that, with the snow falling outside, they celebrated with a "sort of holiday within-doors".

Harris is a professional descendant of these holiday-makers. He joined the staff of the British Museum Library in 1947, persevered after its reconstitution as the British Library in 1973, and has devoted the years since his retirement in 1986 to compiling a comprehensive institutional history covering 220 years.

Each of the book's 11 chapters is divided into five individual sections covering the growth of the library's collections and their conservation, the buildings in which they were accommodated, the general and special catalogues, the reading rooms, and the staff who selected, catalogued and protected the books. Each section has subordinate themes that can be followed in successive chapters. The sections on "Collections" treat sub-categories such as "Gifts", "Purchases", "Copyright deposit", "Duplicates", "Binding" and "Stamping". The "Staff" sections regularly treat "Officers", "Assistants", "Copyists" and "Attendants" as recurrent and discrete topics, while other issues, such as "Superannuation", the "Civil Service Commission" and "Whitley Councils", are covered as necessary.

The most consistently focused sections are those on "catalogues and publications", in which the chief themes are the cataloguing of printed books and of manuscripts. Though Harris's treatment is immaculately even-handed, there are also particularly strong sections on the buildings (enhanced by invaluable plans) and on the staff.

Additional subjects inserted in appropriate chapters include the select committees of the House of Commons, which investigated the British Museum in the 1830s; the Royal Commission on the museum which sat in the 1840s; the effect of two world wars; and the process which culminated in the foundation of the British Library.

There is an appendix on staff structures, and another with list of distinguished holders of readers' tickets from 1759 until 1939. Among the B's in the earliest list are Sir Joseph Banks, Topham Beauclerk, Sir William Blackstone, James Boswell and Edmund Burke. The last list of B's evokes Cecil Beaton, Samuel Beckett, Max Beloff, Eduard Benes, Isaiah Berlin, Sir William Beveridge, Eric Blair, Marc Bloch, Edmund Blunden, Sir Adrian Boult and Jacob Bronowski hugger-mugger at the reading-room desks.

Occasional lapses are inevitable: mistaking the year of death of Lord Ashburnham - 1913, not 1900 - is as venial as Harris's errors get. Meanwhile, all librarians will relish his accounts of that perennial problem, the disruptive reader: "Dr Lhotsky who submitted illegible book application tickets and used vulgar language to the Attendants" in 1845 is a familiar type; so, too, a crack-brained individual who masqueraded as a French secret police agent, made accusations against other readers, and was excluded on the advice of the Metropolitan Police. Another banefully representative reader was the Victorian bibliophile J. O. Halliwell. For a time his ticket was suspended on suspicion of manuscript theft from Trinity College, Cambridge, but quite as grievously, he hogged books required by other readers. On one occasion he had 71 books from the general library and the King's Library, together with sundry reading-room reference books, and would only return nine of them.

There are some familiar stereotypes among the staff too. In the 1870s a young librarian named Theophilus Marzials, composer of the popular "Creole Love Song", "became addicted to Dr. Collis Browne's Chlorodyne and to boys", and got into terrible trouble with an irate clergyman for calling down from the upper gallery of the south-west quadrant to his fellow workers in the basement, "Am I or am I not the department's darling?" Seventy years later the novelist Angus Wilson, a highly acclaimed deputy superintendent of the reading room, was an equally vivid figure. He was, as Margaret Drabble has recorded, "placed conspicuously on a raised dais in the centre of the reading room beneath Panizzi's beautiful dome, a colourful bird in a vast circular cage, bow-tied, blue-rinsed, chattering loudly to readers and staff and friends on the telephone (was that really John Gielgud he was talking to, wondered one eavesdropper?)". Yet for the most part it is not the frivolity of occasional librarians that will impress readers - it is the earnest passion of the majority, as well as the dedication of most trustees, that is most striking in this story.

Restriction of access to sensitive material is another familiar theme. The Home Office asked in 1894 that "access to Colonel J. P. Cundill's Dictionary of Explosives should be restricted, because an anarchist who had been arrested had a book ticket showing that he had used the museum copy of the work". In 1906, 38 books on explosives were removed to a cupboard, and withheld from readers. These restrictions were relaxed in 1917, when there was no longer reckoned to be a danger from "nihilists", but the names of people using such books were recorded. Librarians were protected by bag searches and an increased police presence as a result of Irish terrorist threats in 1938-39.

Harris's measured chronology contains few speculations, and only the most disciplined comparisons. The richness of his evidence, though, will constantly throw up parallels between the issues confronting 18th or 19th-century librarians, and their late 20th-century counterparts. Anxieties about the introduction after 1879 of electric lighting in the reading room during winter - opposed by one of the trustees, the duke of Somerset, who thought the fire risk unacceptable - is reminiscent of resistance to computerised catalogues a century later.

This is a formidable work of scholarship. It contains a huge mass of information and analysis, backed by meticulous sources, a judicious use of statistics and over 100 illustrations. As a work of reference it will never be superseded. Harris insists that "it is a task for others to evaluate the part which the Library has played in the intellectual history of the nation, and indeed of the world of scholarship in general." The cursory coverage given in two recent histories of London - Gary Indiana's The Fort , and Stacey Lardburger's A Traffic Island Near the King's Road - to one of the capital's greatest institutions confirms that a study of the cultural impact of the British Museum Library is highly desirable.

Christopher Phipps is administrator, The London Library.

A History of the British Museum Library 1753-1973

Author - P. R. Harris
ISBN - 0 7123 4562 0
Publisher - The British Library
Price - £50.00
Pages - 833

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